by Ranjit Dev Raj

New Delhi, 13 Jan 2000 (IPS) -- Post-Seattle, India is proving to be the World Trade Organisation's best friend and the first country that its Director-General Mike Moore chose to visit.

Moore had every reason for satisfaction during the four days he spent in India starting Jan 9 even if the visit was somewhat marred by half-hearted demonstrations by trade unions and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) or self-reliance protection forum.

Members of the SJM 'stormed' one of the many functions that Moore attended and read out an "open letter" condemning the WTO for "marginalising 550 million Indian farmers" and "plundering the country's biological wealth and traditional knowledge."

But the SJM is affiliated to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which leads the ruling coalition and has been pursuing a vigorous pace of economic reforms ever since it returned to power in October last year following a general election.

While Moore was in town, the government announced the removal of quantitative restrictions on imports between India and the United States on 1,400 items in traditionally protected areas such as agriculture, textiles and consumer goods.

Under the agreement, India committed itself to lift half of those restrictions within three months while the other half are to be lifted by April 1, 2001. Many of the items on the list had been protected for the better part of the last century.

U.S trade representative to the WTO, Charlene Barshefsky said the "landmark agreement " would "resolve a long-standing issue of importance to the United States."

But the agreement also fast forwards the time table for removal of similar quantitative restrictions which India had successfully negotiated earlier with the European Union and Japan.

Before leaving India, Wednesday, Moore told reporters that he would convey to the United States and the European Union India's strong opposition to social clauses which contributed to the failure of Seattle.

But Moore said inputs from India would be critical to future trade negotiations as well as a host of other critical issues such as non-trade barriers and anti-dumping measures.

Similar sentiments were expressed by the pro-liberalisation economist Jeffrey Sachs while addressing the captains of Indian industry here Wednesday. "We need India's leadership to get the next WTO round started."

"India was right to oppose the US but now should find an appropriate way of discussing critical trade-related issues... we can't get the world trade round going unless India and the US and some other countries work out the modalities," he said.

Sachs even recommended that India "put its foot down and insist on being consulted instead of European countries unilaterally announcing the new head of the International Monetary Fund."

The overtures came after the BJP government obligingly pushed through Parliament, in December, five bills relating to trade marks, geographical indications, copyrights, foreign exchange and semi-conductors.

It also opened up the lucrative nationalised insurance sector to foreign and private participation ignoring protests by trade unions and left wing opposition groups in Parliament to break half-a-century of government monopoly.

In the latest of a series of liberalisation moves the government announced, Wednesday, 74% foreign direct investment (FDI) in the operation of its satellite systems.

Also offered, Wednesday, were long-term leases ranging from 30 to 59 years for private parties to operate its five biggest airports at New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Calcutta and Bangalore, currently state-run.

After the government granted exclusive marketing rights (EMRs) to pharmaceutical transnational corporations (TNCs) earlier last year, the price of ordinary drugs shot up dramatically.

Said the SJM in its open letter to Moore "The pharmaceutical sector, which made available medicines within easy reach of the people is on the verge of closure ... multi-national companies which your organisation represents have already embarked on the process of loot and repatriation of resources."

"Seattle has clearly demonstrated that you are merely a pawn in the hands of the United States. Unabashedly you addressed joint press conferences with the U.S Trade Representative. You behaved as if she was your boss," the letter said.

The SJM also criticised the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) which alternatively played host to Moore.

"They (industrialists who are members of the CII and FICCI) have milked the nationalised banks dry of a staggering $125 billion," the letter said.

Demands have been heard to publicise the list of defaulters from among the industrialists who are currently protected by banking laws which confer confidentiality. (SUNS4585)